History Hasn't Killed It: The Story Behind 'Doctor Zhivago'

Recently restored and re-released in celebration of its 50th anniversary, 'Doctor Zhivago' has come to be regarded as one of cinema’s greatest love stories.
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Recently restored and re-released in celebration of its 50th anniversary, 'Doctor Zhivago' has come to be regarded as one of cinema’s greatest love stories.

In today’s era of overstuffed action movies and raunchy comedies, the epic Hollywood love story is mostly a thing of the past. There was a time, however, when it was a moviegoing staple. Starting with Gone with the Wind, which set the standard for the genre back in 1939, historical romances on a monumental scale were big business for decades. Even by the mid-60s, when the Hollywood studio system was beginning to crumble, an epic love story could still command an epic audience.

Case in point: Doctor Zhivago, released in 1965, remains one of the Top 10 highest-grossing films of all-time (once totals are adjusted for inflation). Audiences flocked to this tale of doomed love set during the Russian Revolution, and although many reviewers were stingy with their praise at the time, critical opinion has since sided with the people who crowded the theaters. Today, most cinema buffs of all stripes would agree that Zhivago is one of the classics of its genre.

How did this extravagant movie about the Russian Revolution shot during the Cold War and featuring two lesser-known stars come to break box-office records and merit frequent and enthusiastic reappraisal? On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, today Bio looks at the story behind Doctor Zhivago.

Zhivago: The Book

Before it became a film, of course, Doctor Zhivago had been a novel—one with quite an interesting and controversial history.

Boris Pasternak Photo

Boris Pasternak during the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. (Photo: Author unknown, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

Its author, Boris Pasternak, was born into a literary environment in Moscow in 1890. His father was an illustrator who created illustrations for the work of family friend Leo Tolstoy. Pasternak became a poet, and for a time, after his first book of poems was published in 1917, he was one of the most famous poets in the Soviet Union. His writing rarely kowtowed to the state’s view of things, however, and by the 1930s, Pasternak’s poetry was not only publicly disparaged by the Soviets but often banned outright.

The reaction of the authorities to Pasternak’s prose was equally dour. Undeterred by censorship, Pasternak continued to write, longing to create a work on a grand scale in the vein of his idol Tolstoy. He began Zhivago after World War II but did not complete it until 1956. A real-life conflict between Pasternak, his wife, and his mistress inspired the love triangle that formed the heart of the book. Pasternak viewed the completed work as primarily a romance novel, but when he tried to convince his Soviet publishers to publish it, they refused, branding it anti-Soviet because of its implicit criticism of the fallout of the Russian Revolution.

Fiercely proud of his work, Pasternak took the extremely risky step of having it smuggled out of the Soviet Union to be published in Italy. “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad,” he is said to have remarked as he handed over his manuscript. Despite many attempts from the Soviet authorities to prevent it, the book was published in Europe in 1957 and was an immediate hit. It was translated into English and dozens of other languages in 1958, and Pasternak was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

It was at this point that the CIA got involved. As detailed in last year’s book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was doing all in its power to undermine and discredit the Soviet regime. In their view, awarding a major prize to a writer regarded as disloyal could only serve to embarrass the Soviets in the eyes of the world. The CIA secretly pressed for Pasternak to win the award (which, in fairness, he had been routinely considered for since the late 40s), and he did. In the meantime, the CIA covertly printed Doctor Zhivago in Russian and had it smuggled into the Soviet Union, where it became an underground sensation.

Despite the fact that Pasternak declined the Nobel Prize (in private, very reluctantly), the Soviet authorities continued to vilify him and at one point considered expelling him from the country. The stress took a toll on the aging author’s health, and by 1960, he was dead.

Commander Lean

David Lean Photo

David Lean in Northern Finland early in 1965, during the shooting of 'Doctor Zhivago.' (Photo: By Kalervo Manninen (Suomen Kuvalehti 1965) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

What didn’t die was Doctor Zhivago. As one of the most popular novels of the late 50s, it was only natural that Hollywood should seek to transfer its oversized drama and passionate characters to celluloid. There was one man in particular who seemed ideally suited to the task of adapting such an expansive work: British director David Lean.

Lean was well known for creating the types of movies commonly referred to as “epics” – wide-ranging stories, often placed in exotic settings, designed to convey the magnitude of a historical moment or particular person. His signature epics were Lawrence of Arabia (1962), about Arab partisan T.E. Lawrence, and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), about prisoners of war forced to build a bridge by the Japanese during World War II. Both of these popular and critical successes won Oscars for Best Picture of the Year.

Lean had read Doctor Zhivago in 1959 after finishing Lawrence of Arabia, and when producer Carlo Ponti suggested it as his next project, he was enthusiastic. Ponti originally conceived of the film as a vehicle for his wife Sophia Loren, but Lean couldn’t picture Loren in the key role of Lara, Zhivago’s love interest. Instead, once the project began to get off the ground in 1963, he went in a completely different direction. (Although Lean had sidelined Ponti’s wife, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was now involved in the financing of the film and gave Lean full control of casting. Ponti held no grudge.)

Many actors and actresses had been considered for the main roles of Zhivago and Lara, among them Peter O’Toole and Paul Newman (for Zhivago) and Jane Fonda and Yvette Mimieux (for Lara). Lean, however, was impressed with young British actress Julie Christie, who had made a splash in her first major role in the kitchen sink drama Billy Liar (with Tom Courtenay, who would also land a part in Zhivago). Christie’s commanding beauty, combined with her obvious intelligence, made her Lean’s ideal choice for the role. For Zhivago, Lean made the somewhat more surprising choice of casting Omar Sharif, who had made such a strong impression in a supporting role in Lawrence of Arabia. Despite his many gifts as an actor, few on the project considered him the ideal choice for a Russian doctor and poet. Sharif had hoped to get a smaller role on the picture and was surprised (but pleased) when Lean proposed that he play the lead.

Aside from Sharif, Lean gathered together many other members of the team that had worked on Lawrence of Arabia, including scriptwriter Robert Bolt and set designer John Box. Nicholas Roeg, who would in a short time become a celebrated director himself (Walkabout, Don’t Look Now), began the film as director of photography, but he did not see eye-to-eye with Lean about how the film should look (Lean’s aesthetic approach to the film was to make the war scenes look sunny and beautiful and the love scenes grey and grim; Roeg’s instincts were exactly the opposite). Another Lawrence alumnus, Freddie Young, was invited back for the year-long shoot that would become Zhivago. Lean was notorious for taking his time to get things right, and his previous two movies had also been extended shoots. 1965 would be the year of Zhivago for all concerned.

Doctor Zhivago Photo

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie from the trailer for the 1965 film 'Doctor Zhivago.' (Photo: Trailer screenshot (Freddie Young), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Spanish Dictator

For a director like David Lean, who liked to shoot on-location as often as possible, the first and foremost obstacle presented by Doctor Zhivago was the fact that its true setting was off-limits. By 1964, none of the Soviet regime’s rancor towards Pasternak and Zhivago had abated, so the possibility of filming in the Soviet Union was highly unlikely (Lean was invited to Moscow to discuss it, but he suspected the meeting was intended solely to discourage him from making the movie at all and did not go). After searching around the world for a location that offered the expanses of land, crowds of people, and access to horses and old steam locomotives that the production required, John Box proposed Spain as the best choice. Filming began there in December of 1964 and would continue through 1965. Although some unusual measures had to be taken to create a snowy landscape during a hot Spanish summer (white marble from a local quarry was powdered and spread on white plastic across the fields), the main location in northern Spain proved to be effective and relatively inexpensive.

Much more expensive was the set that Lean’s team built outside of Madrid: two full-scale Moscow streets circa 1922 that took 18 months to build. Unlike most such sets, the Moscow recreation was not a long façade propped up by wood. Lean’s team essentially created homes with fully furnished interiors that could be used for filming. Lean insisted on a high level of historical accuracy in the recreation, which was typical of his approach in general. He fussed over details that would not even show on screen, including insisting that his costume designer recreate the correct period underwear for all of his actors.

Lean’s perfectionism rarely endeared him to his technicians or his performers. A true auteur, Lean fully controlled every aspect of the movie and refused to give up on a take until he had achieved exactly what he wanted down to the last miniscule movement. He famously regarded his actors as objects to be manipulated to suit his scheme, and he made special effort to be distant with them off-set so that they would not influence his vision on-set. Lean regretted accepting Rod Steiger in the cast as Lara’s aristocratic lover Komarovsky since Steiger chafed at over-direction and insisted on inserting his own ideas into his performance in true “method actor” tradition. Most of the actors who worked with Lean on Zhivago did not recall the experience fondly, although many later admitted that the results were worth the effort. At the time, however, despite his outwardly unassuming style of communication, most regarded Lean more as dictator than director.

Doctor Zhivago Photo

The Cossacks attack a peaceful demonstration in 'Doctor Zhivago.' (Photo: Cropped screenshot from the trailer, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Zhivago moved forward, however slowly, all of the actors and technicians aware that they were employed in a major enterprise in spite of their reservations about David Lean’s stern approach. After filming wrapped in Spain, there was additional filming in Finland and Canada for winter scenes that required authentic snow. (The Finland location was only 10 miles from the Russian border, as close as the production would come to its spiritual home.) Filming was finally completed by October of 1965, and Lean and his team took to the editing room. The movie premiere was scheduled for the end of the year, so there were only eight weeks to edit the entire film. Once edited, the final film ran almost three and a half hours. Grand themes played on a grand scale required a long running time.

A Worthy Gamble

Zhivago cost a fortune to film; in 1965, it was one of the most expensive movies ever made, various estimates putting its cost between $11 and $15 million. The many settings, large crowd and battle scenes, and unusual requirements (including an interior of a dacha “frozen” in beeswax) guaranteed that it would be a pricey proposition. Confident in Lean and in the potential of the story, however, the film’s producers banked that it would find an eager audience. They were completely right.

Released on December 22nd, 1965, Doctor Zhivago soon became one of the biggest hits of 1966. Omar Sharif and Julie Christie became the screen’s newest stars, “Zhivago”-style clothing featured in fashion magazines and department stores, and the love theme from the movie (“Lara’s Theme”) by Maurice Jarre became ubiquitous (it became a hit single for several artists when lyrics were written for it and it was retitled “Somewhere, My Love”). Eventually, the film would gross an incredible $112 million domestically and over $200 million worldwide.

Julie Christie Doctor Zhivago Photo

Julie Christie in a scene from 'Doctor Zhivago.' (Photo: Trailer screenshot. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Critics were less enthralled with the film than the general public. Some opined that Sharif and Christie lacked chemistry; others that the romance was nice enough, but that it was basically a soap opera performed on a ludicrously elaborate scale. Most critics agreed that the film was visually stunning, but few admitted to being enchanted by its handling of character or historical incident. Unmoved by the stellar box office receipts, David Lean reportedly took the negative criticism to heart and proclaimed that he would never direct another picture; he came close to living up to his word, only directing two more features in the following 20 years.

A Lasting Love Affair

Doctor Zhivago had been released just in time to qualify for the 1966 Academy Awards. Although Lean’s epics were usually huge Oscar gatherers, Doctor Zhivago’s awards would mostly be for technical achievement (Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, among others), although Robert Bolt did win an award for his adapted screenplay. The more populist Golden Globe Awards, however, nearly gave Zhivago a sweep: Best Film, Best Actor (Sharif), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Music. Only Julie Christie failed to pick up an award in the Best Actress category. Perhaps with the exception of the embittered David Lean, almost everyone involved with Zhivago continued to have busy and successful careers afterward, particularly Christie and Sharif.

Although it had always been popular with audiences, through the 80s and 90s Doctor Zhivago’s critical reputation began to improve. One of the reasons may be that few films like it would follow. In a sense, Zhivago was the final flowering of the romantic epic. Although there would be later attempts at films in this vein, such as Warren Beatty’s Reds or Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, the decline in popular interest in this kind of film might best be indicated by Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a notorious disaster that cost millions to make but failed miserably at the box office in 1980. The era of the sweeping historical romance is over for the cinema; modest television dramas like Downton Abbey seem to suffice for modern viewers. Pasha, the character played by Tom Courtenay, makes a famous observation in Doctor Zhivago that “the personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it.” One might say the same about the romantic epic in America.

Doctor Zhivago, however, continues to live on. In 1988, the book was published in Russia for the first time, and in 1994, the movie was finally shown there. The rise of the DVD market created such a demand for the film that it was issued several times, most recently in a 45th anniversary edition. This year there was even an attempt to bring Doctor Zhivago to Broadway as a musical; unfortunately, the show closed in May after less than 50 performances (the critics savaged this Zhivago as well). The film, however, still possesses some kind of cinematic magic that brings audiences back to it. Whether it’s the spectacle of a recreated Russia from the distant past, the youthful and attractive cast still in their first flower of fame (Omar Sharif sadly just passed away in July), or the tragic love story that seems so passionate amidst such misery, audiences still find much to love in Doctor Zhivago. As the era of the historical romance recedes further with every passing year, this love affair seems likely to go on and on.